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Posted on Fri 8 Nov 2019

Difference and diversity at the intersection of art and technology

This is the third in a series of articles commissioned by Watershed and Arts Council England as a resource for artists looking to work with art and emerging technologies in the South West.

Victoria Melody Image by Jon Aitken

Victoria Melody Image by Jon Aitken

Journalist and Rife Editor Sammy Jones looks at the growing body of work which uses creative technology to explore disability, difference and neurodiversity:

The field of creative technology can be hard to crack for anyone without a coding skillset - never mind trying to work as a disabled person in a landscape that lacks representation of disabled people, and fails to prioritisation change. These institutional failings contribute to discrimination, negative unconscious bias, and a landscape that still sometimes says to disabled people that ‘this is not made for you’ - as this Making A Shift Report explains.  

But despite the many barriers, there are places where change is taking place, and a range of artists are developing new ideas that encourage us to consider the world from every viewpoint. Here’s a spotlight on some of these ground-breaking projects, followed by some places to look for support for your work:

Hearing Hearing Aid (HHA) by Jonny Cotsen 
‘Hearing people are not very good listeners,’ says deaf Pervasive Media Studio resident Jonny, of the need for his Hearing Hearing Aid (HHA). His work focuses on communication between deaf and hearing people, and the HHA places a hearing person into the world of a deaf person using immersive tech. As the audience looks at the performer, the sound will become clear, but if they look away, the sound becomes distorted - mimicking how deaf people rely on reading lips and processing what’s being said to them with the whole body, not just the voice. The purpose of the HHA is to create an empathetic piece that will provide people with the opportunity to reflect on how they listen and engage in their everyday world. Each individual will have their own unique experience of HHA.

In my Shoes by Jane Gauntlett 
Storyteller and theatre-maker Jane is in the process of creating a library of VR experiences that others can step into using immersive technology, named In My Shoes. First in the series, Dancing With Myself, focusses on her own story of an epileptic seizure while eating at a restaurant. It concentrates on communicating how that might feel to non-epileptics, and its power is drawn from its subtleties, like concerned looks from fellow diners, and the struggle to relay a joke you’ve only just heard. Far from just shilling VR as an empty-hearted ‘empathy machine,’ the experience simply suggests, ‘what if this was you?’

A Crash Course in Cloudspotting by Raquel Meseguer 
Uncharted Collective founder and producer Raquel has lived with chronic pain for the past decade, so she has to rest throughout the day, sometimes in public places. When she does, however, she’s often the recipient of strange looks, and security can try and move her on. Her work, A Crash Course in Cloudspotting, is an audio-visual installation that questions why rest is so reviled in our society, and spotlights the experiences of others with invisible needs. This project has led to the development of the Resting Spaces Network, an app-in-progress that highlights public spaces where you are welcome to lie down in safety.

Victoria Melody 
Performance-maker Victoria’s work-in-progress comedy show, Professional Stranger, sees her attempting to become a standup comedian, with the aim of regenerating her lack of dopamine - which is connected to her diagnosis of ADHD. Making people laugh releases dopamine, and in theory, could quell her need to seek constant rewards without the need for the medication that made her ‘off [her] head.’ To do this, she’s working with the Pervasive Media Studio, a neuroscientist and an EEG headset to find out more about what happens to your brain when you’re funny. As she performs, a screen behind her reveals how she’s really feeling via the brain-monitoring equipment - be that calm, excited, or very, very scared.

Sue Austin 
Devon-based Disabled artist Sue works across multimedia, performance and installation. Her practice has opened up a thinking space around the materiality of the wheelchair. Her piece for London 2012’s Cultural Olympiad, Creating the Spectacle!, featured a modified wheelchair and scuba diving equipment to enable her to move underwater.

The next iteration of this project ongoing. Durational artwork will present imagery of a wheelchair soaring high in the air, flying through dramatic scenery in a graceful expression of freedom and adventure. Finding ways to create an immersive experience of those artworks has resulted in Sue innovating new immersive 360° display systems then using them in order to facilitate new levels of access, particularly for those facing barriers in attending mainstream arts venues. Through her existing links with NASA, Sue hopes to complete this triptych with the creation of imagery of a wheelchair in space.

Joseph Wilk 
Programmer, musician and artist Joseph specialises in experimental audio, musical composition tools, generative/interactive computer graphics and programming as a performance. His current work, funded by South West Creative Technology Network, explores how the language of automation and programming can be owned and used by disabled people to express and challenge the world and environment they live in. How we can design the future of automation with disabled people rather than for them?

Feeling inspired? There organisations, commissioners and funders who are keen to hear about your ideas.

If you are a venue or a producers looking to prioritise accessibility within your work - Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent met up with the Enablers connected to Eclipse Theatre’s Slate movement to talk about working with disabled artists and shared their thoughts here:

The representation of disability and disabled people in the culture and tech sectors is far from resolved. Following the production of this article, we have commissioned Rowan James to write about the conflicting attitudes around this subject from his own experience (coming soon).